The increase in parents’ expectations and criticisms is linked to
The researchers analyzed data from more than 20,000 American, Canadian and British university students. They found that young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations and criticisms increased over the past 32 years and were linked to an increase in their perfectionism.
“Perfectionism contributes to many psychological conditions, including depression, anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders,” said lead researcher Thomas Curran, PhD, assistant professor of psychological and behavioral sciences at
Study co-author Andrew P. Hill, PhD, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at
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Perfectionism often becomes a permanent character trait, and previous research has shown that perfectionists become more neurotic and less conscientious as they age. Perfectionism can also be perpetuated across generations, with perfectionist parents raising perfectionist children.
Curran and Hill previously found that three types of perfectionism were increasing among young people in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They suspected that one cause could be that parents are becoming increasingly anxious and controlling.
The first meta-analysis included 21 studies with data from over 7,000 students. Parental expectations and criticisms had moderate associations with self- and other-oriented perfectionism and a large association with socially prescribed perfectionism.
Self-focused perfectionism involves perfectionist standards about the self. Other-oriented perfectionism is outward-looking perfectionism, where someone expects others to be perfectionists. Socially prescribed perfectionism is the perception that others and society demand perfection. The three types of perfectionism overlap and can exacerbate each other’s effects in negative ways.
Parental expectations had a greater impact than parental criticism on self- and other-oriented perfectionism, so parental expectations may be more damaging than parental criticism. “Parental expectations have a high cost when they are perceived as excessive,” Curran said.
“Young people internalize these expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem. And when they don’t meet them, as they invariably will, they will criticize themselves for not matching. To compensate, they strive to be perfect,” he added.
Self-focused perfectionism was higher among American students than among Canadian or British students, possibly due to more intense academic competition in the United States.
“These trends may help explain the increase in mental health problems among young people and suggest that this problem will only get worse in the future,” Hill said.
“It is normal for parents to be anxious for their children, but this anxiety is increasingly interpreted as pressure to be perfect,” he added.
The second meta-analysis included 84 studies conducted between 1989 and 2021 with a total of 23,975 students. Parental expectations, criticism and their combined parental pressure have increased over these 32 years, with parental expectations rising by far at the fastest rate.
“The rate of increase in young people’s perceptions of their parents’ expectations is remarkable,” an average increase of 40% from 1989, Curran said.
The studies were conducted in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, so the results cannot be generalized to other cultures. The research is correlational, so it cannot prove that rising parental expectations or criticism caused an increase in perfectionism among students, only that there is a connection between them.
However, the research suggests troublesome changes over time, according to the researchers.
“So what are parents supposed to do? Parents are not to blame because they are reacting with anxiety to a hyper-competitive world with fierce academic pressures, rampant inequality, and technological innovations like social media that spread unrealistic ideals of how we should appear and perform.” “, said Curran.
“Parents place excessive expectations on their children because they believe, quite rightly, society demands it or their children will fall down the social ladder,” Curran added.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about parents recalibrating their expectations. It’s about society – our economy,
Parents can help their children deal with societal pressures in healthy ways by teaching them that failure, or imperfection, is a normal and natural part of life, Curran said.
“Focusing on learning and development, not test scores or social media, helps children develop a healthy self-esteem that is not dependent on validation from others or external metrics,” said he concluded.